Call to Worship: 2008 All Over Again

Psalm 91:1-2

1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. 2 I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”

With markets reeling in recent weeks over the sovereign debt crisis—the inability of sovereign nations to pay their bills—and the downgrade of our country’s own credit rating, I’ve been hearing colleagues at the financial institution where I work ask, is this 2008 all over again?

Debt is about creditors. Credit is about trust. A famous dictum by 19th century journalist Walter Bagehot was, “Every banker knows that if he has to prove he is worthy of credit, however good may be his arguments, in fact his credit is gone.”

When you hear terms like “value destruction,” it means there has been a breakdown in trust. So, the markets, then, rather than being a place where shareholders invest in companies, have become, as Jon Stewart put it succinctly, “like a giant mood ring and we get to watch.” And we once again see layoffs in the headlines again.

Whet do we make of times like this? In the “sky is falling” type moments like this, what am I to believe?

It’s right here, in this Psalm: His protection is real. His strength and presence is like the bulwark of a fortress. The good faith and credit of our King will never falter. He is trustworthy. He is our protector.

Has anxiety enveloped you? A development unfolded this week that you couldn’t have seen coming? Hold fast to the Lord. He has foreseen these events. He walks through them with you.

The Hard Part

The hardest thing about this job of being an elder is caring.

Changing how we do things (what we nerds in the corporate world Ike to call “process improvement”), networking and building partnerships, the early morning breakfasts or afternoon coffees or evening beers to spend time with people, counseling friends with difficult problems, looking for new opportunities, even the meetings: I really do live for this stuff. A mentor of mine back in college used to challenge me to not just lead Bible studies, but actually learn to lay my life down for other people. I haven’t been more challenged to live by this principle anywhere else but here.

I used to joke with my friends about how my pastor during college (different church would preach about a moralistic faith of reading your Bible and praying more. I look back on my prideful twenty-something self with a twinge of sorrow about that attitude, but I do think we were onto something with that John 15:13 idea.

I started blogging again so I could show that my schedule isn’t all that bad and try to make up for (and repent of) spreading misinformation about the demands on my time. They’re really not all that bad. But, when they sometimes are, it’s so, so worth it: there really is little else that I get a charge out of more than being an elder at the Village Church. Where else could I possibly employ what I believe my gifts of administration in more capably than right here? Certainly not my (important, but not quite so) job as a tiny cog in a financial services company.

I mentioned before that the hardest part, though, is caring. Friends from our Jersey fellowship group congratulated me for becoming an elder with a bottle of Dewar’s 12-year scotch. I drained it in, oh, my first year or so as an elder (I’ll be halfway through my three-year term in October). And not because it was a crazy amount of work, or because I was up late writing meeting minutes, or the occasional (and they were occasional) marathon meetings.

It was because we had to make some difficult decisions about things that were close to my heart. Because I worried that the real matters that we had to focus on as a session sometimes had a lasting impact in people’s lives. Because I often felt sympathetic to all sides of an argument, but still had to choose between them.

I don’t think that anything could have prepared me for this, apart from being a father. It’s one thing to care about people a lot. It’s another when it’s your own family. And it’s still another when it involves family where it’s your job to be responsible for other peoples’ lives.

We caught my daughter in a lie today. Not earth-shattering, but one where we all knew what the score was and that my wife and I had to call her on it. It involved a punishment (a three-minute timeout), and then a process of reconciliation: asking her why she got the timeout, explaining it to her, forgiving her, and asking her to apologize to my wife so she could offer forgiveness, too.

None of that was fun: not the fact that she had lied, nor the question in the back of my mind whether she really knew what she had done, nor the hurtful look in her tear-streamed eyes, nor the awkwardness of reliving the moment to get my point across, nor the sense of unease watching her cross the room to see if she really was going to ask my wife for forgiveness (she did), nor, finally, my concern that she might have held a grudge against me for the whole experience (she didn’t).

But, the lesson was important. It had to be clear to my daughter that lying was hurtful. And that required my taking the risk to be decisive even if she might have been confused (because, regardless, her word is important). And she needed to ask forgiveness because that’s how healthy relationships work. And all of this because, as a father, I’m provided a short window to influence the trajectory of this little life 5, 10, and 20 years into the future.

Even though the analogy to fatherhood breaks down quickly, I have found that being an elder informs my life as a father and vice-versa. The difficulty remains the same: it’s hard to put your heart on the line about stuff you know—and know from the Scriptures—really matters, and realize that oftentimes (not every time, God be praised), that will mean rejection.

That’s the real hard part. And, if it weren’t a constant reminder of how I have been so completely forgiven for my own rejection of Christ, I might have given up. But that’s when I realize that so much of this work is about the change inside of me, and the reminder that our friends and our neighbors need that just as deeply as I do.

Wed, July 7 Schedule

My glamorous life began at 4:57am, when my wife got out of bed to put the baby in the swing. I got up with my alarm at 5am and went in to check on her. Little guy, unbeknownst to me, had been thrashing and squawking since he nursed at 3:15am and Sarah hadn’t gotten any sleep since then. She didn’t go to bed much sooner than I did, so I offered to switch with her and sleep on the couch while we waited for the swing to put him back to sleep.

Sarah brought my iPhone to me at 5:15am because the alarm had gone off (oops!), so I started up Koi Pond to let the white noise soothe Joel. It worked: we all dozed until 5:45am, when the delivery person showed up with our biweekly vegetable co-op delivery. I moved the baby to the pack and play and hopped in the shower.

Forty-five minutes later, I was out the door while Sarah went back to sleep. I was bringing the car in for service, so I drove out to the ‘burbs. Even after stopping at Starbucks and plucking a torn contact out of my right eye (yay, cyclops day), I made it to the shop about 40 minutes early. I think was secretly looking forward to hanging out with my iPad in the Wi-Fi-enabled waiting room while watching CNN on a 42″ flat screen.

After about 45 minutes enjoying the relative peace of digital solitude, the mechanic called me down to break the bad news: our engine was on its last legs. The valve clatter I thought (wished? hoped?) I had heard was actually the connecting rod in one of the car’s cylinders.

I sat there sort of stunned. The car is about 8,000 miles, or about 6 months, past its warranty. I sort of sank in the chair and came to grips with the fact that there was nothing I could do, short of buying a new engine (the shop estimated about $8,500, installed) or an entirely new car.

I went for a walk.

Route 22 offers about the least pedestrian-friendly walk you can find in Jersey—more so in the humid air—but I walked it anyway, thinking about how God has sustained my family through so much and how He would clearly be faithful through this. I prayed for wisdom and headed back to the repair shop. I paid for the oil change and the inspection and eased the still-drivable car out of the parking lot onto the highway. It was just before 10am.

Driving a car that could die at any moment can be a heart-pounding experience, but I mostly took it slow and steady. Sarah called me back (I had tried to get a hold of her earlier). I took a deep breath and gave her the news: the car is nearing its death. She sort of sighed and let me tell her that, while the news was bad, it wasn’t the end of the world. Maybe it’s an opportunity to get a new car that fits our family better (Joel’s rear-facing carseat pushes the front passenger seat uncomfortably toward the dashboard). Or, perhaps, we get a motor with fewer miles and extend the viability of the car. The long and short of it is that not all is lost.

At the start of this year, we set a goal of getting out of debt by the end of 2010. We scrapped and saved and employed more financial discipline in the last six months than in all the eight years of our marriage to reach that goal—I have three dress shirts with a hole in the left elbow that I still wear to the office to remind me of that fact. But, we had to face the reality that our goal would incur a setback.

But, hey, coming into 2010, we had one credit card maxed out and were carrying a balance on two others. Today, we have one card with $5,500 left to pay off and we cancelled the other two. We are, as it turns out, in a far better place to handle this minor emergency than even six months ago. It’s tempting to read irony into difficult circumstances like these. When I reflect on these facts, though, I choose to see providence.

My wife graciously let me stop at a cafe and think about our next steps. I spent from 10am to 12pm thinking, making spreadsheets, and talking to the insightful Brandon Edling (our church’s resident Financial Peace expert). Brandon saved me a ton of time with his simple advice: we made a commitment to get out of debt on the basis of some very good reasons, and this crisis is a chance to reaffirm that commitment. This simple insight—that this event doesn’t mean we have to depart from our values—saved me a ton of time looking for some other solution or making a hasty decision.

I headed home (I had actually planned to work remotely but was so distracted that I simply emailed some colleagues that I wouldn’t be available for the day). Because of the veggie co-op delivery earlier that morning, a good dozen or so people were coming to our apartment to pick up their produce. That’s to say things were a little chaotic: it was all I could do to spend time working through my Car Decision Spreadsheet, be quasi-personable to people who came by, and help Sarah take care of the kids (somewhere in there I ate lunch, too).

That went on until about 6pm, when we started getting Dahlia ready for bed. For prayer time, I asked her if we could pray about our car situation together and explained what “broken down” meant—she seemed to take it in stride.

Joel went to bed noiselessly at 8pm, followed shortly by my exhausted wife at around 9pm.

I spent the rest of the evening working on a new budget spreadsheet that lets us enter “what if” scenarios (while watching Season 1 of Rescue Me on Netflix). My father-in-law texted some advice: Jasper Remanufactured Engines could build us a new engine for installation by one of their local, certified service shops. Total cost (not including labor): $3,511. And it comes with a 3-year, 100,000-mile guarantee. They’ve been doing this since 1942, and car geeks know and recommend their work. Sold. Next I have to find a service shop.

The budget spreadsheet took a good few hours, but at the end, I felt confident about exactly what changes we had to put in place for the next few weeks (basically, scale back our credit card payments to the minimum, use our savings toward the engine and replenish it over the next two months), how it was going to impact our debt pay-off plan (it will push another 60-90 days into 2011), and how paying cash for an engine now will benefit us in a 24-month timeframe (we basically come out $1,000 ahead as opposed to paying $1,000 in interest AND we should be able to pay cash for a car two summers from now).

With the decision behind me, I stood on our front stoop outside and watched the silent city. I’m not really the type to lose my head in the midst of trouble, but challenges like this can be wearying. I spent a few minutes enjoying the solitude again and went inside to collapse in bed. It was a little after 2am, the end of an unusually tough day.

July 6 Schedule

Reluctantly up at 1:06am—DJ had wet the bed again (hmm). Changed her and her sheets and put her back down to bed 10 minutes later.

Used the interruption as an excuse to be lazy. Snoozed the iPhone and Blackberry alarms (5:15am and 6:30am, respectively) and stayed in bed until 7:30am, dreaming of our company’s stock price sinking below a dollar again and meeting a couple CNBC reporters.

Showered, dog walked, Blackberry checked. Kissed mama and baby goodbye (DJ is still asleep by now) and caught the crowded 8:20am Path out of Penn. Reminded myself why I don’t like taking the later trains.

QT: 15 minutes in prayer (asked forgiveness for feeling distracted, lifted up our church and its leaders and individual needs) and 10 minutes to finish 2nd Kings (the fall of Judah to Babylon). On the advice of a friend this weekend, I’ll spend the rest of this year in the epistles.

That quiet time is fairly typical (for a weekday—I’m less consistent on the weekends), though I often find it hard to limit prayer enough to make time for reading the Scriptures.

Schlep to 388 Greenwich from WTC. Now really kicking myself for not coming in early in shorts and changing at the office.

Checked in late to a 9:00am meet. Glanced at our family account balances and started another semi-weekly budget update email for Sarah (I’ll post a sample up here sometime — the OCD, it runs deep). Plowing through work inbox, 34 items to go before inbox 0.

Got the inbox down to three messages in an hour. Reviewed progress on a SharePoint project with an intern. Skipped lunch (an increasingly frequent habit) in favor of a second coffee.

Spent the next three hours following up on website enhancements, program milestone progress, checking my news reader and researching communication in organizations. Talked with my Managing Director about his trip to Asia and some tech toys he wants to buy.

Another quick call to the intern, and spent the last hour in the office reading a bit of Emotional Intelligence 2.0 (just started, but meh so far) and checking church email. Replied to a longish email from the pastor with an even longer one, setting out a four-point strategy to deal with the perception that our church is, well, doomed.

The four points, in brief:

  1. Reinvest or continue to invest in our avenues for bringing new people to our church: local college ministers, families with children, the arts, and perhaps some more creative online venues (Facebook, Google)
  2. Provide greater context to the ten-year membership decline: the legacy of our church isn’t summed up in that single line, and our church (because of its turnover) has a bad collective memory—I think we should do this as part of a church-wide Church Health Team email
  3. Encourage communication: launch a monthly ministry leader testimony (two other church leaders have suggested the same idea) and launch soon; we also ought to encourage Eph 4-type communication (we are members of one another, and we should speak the truth in love to one another) from the congregation so members are encouraged to raise concerns with the pastor rather than let them fester (and give the devil a foothold)
  4. Advise patience: 2nd Kings ends with the fall of Judah to Babylon; church may appear at times to be made of straw and feel as though a stiff breeze would knock it over, but we are, in fact, laying concrete for a tower of hope in the Kingdom of God

Left the office a little late at 5:30pm, home by 6:30pm after reading Seth Godin’s (recommended) Fast Company article, In Praise of the Purple Cow, on the train. It got me thinking about what our distinctiveness is as a church. We are a church of misfits, it’s true, but is that the right idea?

Met the family and some neighbors in the courtyard of our building and was immediately put to work by my daughter fishing the wand out of a gallon-size bubble container. DJ was soaked after running around with the garden hose with the neighbors’ little boy. Gave her a bath while Sarah picked up burgers from around the corner.

Dinner was at 7:30pm, Sarah took DJ to bed at 8:00pm while I held the little guy. He subsequently went to bed at 8:15pm.

Spent the evening catching up on email and the news reader. Arranged for breakfast at Herald Sq at 6:45am on Fri, meeting with the Women’s group next week on Thu at 7am, and mid-week prayer this Thu at 7am.

Taking the car in for service tomorrow at 7:50am and working from there. Only, turns out I left my laptop at the office, so I’ll be mostly making phone calls and emailing. Whoops.

Finished this blog at 11:35pm.

July 5 Schedule

I woke up on Monday to DJ’s cries at 6:10am. When I got downstairs, she told me, “the bed is stinky and a little wet.” Uh-huh. Changed and brought her upstairs where we crashed on the couch until 9:30am. That took the edge off of being up a little early.

Started out the day with plans to hang out with my sister at a holiday festival (she backed out, not feeling well—festival fail). We thought we might go to the NJ state fair at the Meadowlands, but thought better of it after walking the dog in the 101°F heat.

Went through my task list (a Google Docs spreadsheet that will make for my fourth task list app of this year), email and news feeds while DJ and I and watched the Lion King in ten 9-minute parts on YouTube.

Watched the kids while Sarah went out to pick up iced coffees. Little guy napped while DJ watched the Incredibles. Scrambled around with laundry, vacuuming, and straightening up before Sarah got back home around 1:30pm.

After DJ’s second video, I asked her to do something that didn’t require Korean animators or Pixar server farms. She played with Buzz and the princesses on her play kitchen set while I marveled at the results of my work: I had spent three hours on Saturday reorganizing Dahlia’s toys and clearing off that play kitchen. She hadn’t played with it in a month, and now my work was paying off. For some reason, though, the princesses ended up trapped in the play microwave.

Took DJ out in the stroller a bit later to run some errands on Ferry Street for about an hour.

After coming home and cooling off (and being grateful we didn’t take our two small, pale children to the fair), we decided to head over to Ikea to pick up a couple of things and give Dahlia some play time in the ball pit. Got home around 7:00pm and had DJ in bed by 8:00pm. Sarah rocked the little guy down while I walked the dog.

Leftovers and a movie with Sarah and Jessi—Glenglarry Glen Ross in HD, $10 to own on iTunes. Went over the calendar with Sarah around 11pm, in bed by 11:15pm. Decided not to finish this blog until tomorrow. 🙂

July 4 Schedule

Up at 8am because DJ said so.

Promptly put her in front of a bowl of Frosted Mini-Wheats and Toy Story, both at her request (the former because she says “wheat squares with sugar” in the most adorable 3-year-old diction, and the latter because Sunday is a MommyDaddyDahlia Day entitling her to two whole videos).

Showered. Race against the clock to be at church by 10:35am for nursery setup. The clock was not trying very hard today.

No breakfast (because I think I’m Gen. McChrystal), prepped the tykes and over-diapered the diaper bag.

The five of us piled into the car at 10:05ish. Got to church on time.

Left DJ with her mom and brought some nursery stuff up. Kibitzed with friends. Looked for a fan for the nursery until about 11:05am with the intention of coming back to it during the Peace.

Worshipped. Forgot about the fan. Took DJ to the nursery (but first potty), and came back to service. Took notes on Vito’s excellent sermon on the iPad while my lovely wife held the boy.

Got Dahlia before communion. For some reason she likes to smush her hands into my face as we head back to our seats.

After service!

Agreed to come to the Women’s group (7am Thurs) to do Q&A and brainstorming. Stifled my mild intimidation at that group’s ninja awesomeness.

Signed on another member (“a solid maybe”) to my super-secret Manhattan project. Talked additional logistics with someone else.

Discussed the Sunday Service intranet site I built last week with the church admin. Told her I wanted to “help the Worship Leader help you,” which she dug. Need to send her an email reminder template this week.

A few more personal conversations before carrying down some equipment and some nursery stuff into storage.

Back in the car at 1pm. Stopped at Starbucks for iced coffee. Told DJ the story of Sleeping Beauty while we headed towards the Holland Tunnel:

Me: “…and the knight in shining armor—wait, what’s another word for vanquished?”
Sarah: “Killed?”
Me: “Slew! Slew the dragon!”

Stopped at home by 2pm to pick up the dog and drop off bagels. Talked with Sarah about Stuff That Matters along the way. Still madly in love with her.

Stopped to pick up flowers, arrived at Dad’s on time by 3pm (Walkers: 2, Clock: 0). Dinner, family time until 6pm.

Home by 7pm. Nighttime mode.

Diaper change. Checked blogs, email. “Read” two picture books to my daughter, prayed with her and wished her goodnight by 7:50pm. Sarah had JT down at 8:20pm. Bedtime fail. Changed another diaper and rocked the boy down again by 8:35pm.

Church blogging—you’re soaking in it!—and email until 11pm. Dithered with editing until 11:50pm.

Not setting an alarm for tomorrow, a holiday. DJ is almost always up by 8am.

Well, It's Really Like This

A few weeks ago, I blogged about what it’s like to be a new guy to the whole PCA elder thing. But, I neglected to confess a real point of pride in my work so far: I like to brag about working hard.

I work in an industry that is known to employ people who “live off of 2 hours’ sleep and the fear of lesser men” (I’ll buy lunch for anyone who knows that reference). I hold up as heroes men like Newark Mayor Cory Booker, whom Stephen Colbert once called Batman because of his penchant for riding around with a police detail at 3am to personally observe and stop crime on his city streets. I thought the 60 Minutes report on Stanley McCrystal’s ascetic lifestyle—in a nutshell: up at 4am, runs one hour per day, eats one meal per day—was pretty cool.

And I’m surrounded by downright intense people: my financial services friend who wakes up at 3:30am to feed his baby and send work-related email. My consulting friend who works, like, 70 hours a week and calls it a light week. My religious freedom lawyer friend who travels the globe and advises tribes how to fight for their right to worship as they choose—she basically never leaves the office.

And then there’s me: that slacker kid whom it was doubtful would make anything of his life. Whose guidance counselor had to goad into taking the SATs and whose father had to cajole into applying at the local community college. Who later was laid off of his comfy office job 6 months after graduating from Rutgers and had to learn what it was like to hustle for a job. Whose daughter inspired him to finally take control of the family finances. Who learned what working hard kind of looked like when he had to be at the office at 6am just so he could be prepared for a 10am meeting several times a month.

Denis Leary talked in his recent podcast about how he’s driven to accomplish things in his life because of the people in his life who told him what he couldn’t do (NSFW). I’ve got a little of that in me, I think. And after three decades, I feel as though I know what it is to work hard for something I think really matters.

So, yeah, I get a charge out of waking up at 4:30am to meet someone for breakfast in Times Square before work. But, I think, I’ve done a pretty lame, self-congratulatory job of bragging about that, and caused a fair amount of confusion and dismay about what this elder gig really involves.

To fix that problem, here’s what I’d like to do: I’m going to blog my schedule every day for the next thirty days, until August 4th. I think it will be a fascinating discipline for me, and a helpful resource for anyone thinking about coming on board our session.

I have a feeling that the result of this is going to be that people find I don’t work nearly as hard as I’d like them to believe.

It’s Like This

I once had a job interview that kind of described what being a rookie PCA elder has been like.

It was at AIG, before they had the vaguely scummy reputation they now enjoy (though they were well on their way to earning it). I had just lost my job and my former employer had brought in some companies from around the area to host a mini job fair for the few hundred of us that had been served a pink slip.

The AIG guys were at one of a handful of tables in our featureless gray conference room. I sat with them and slid my résumé across the table—they were two executives, hotshots. They looked over my job history and asked the usual questions. And the one who claimed to be a CIO of some sort smirked at my mid-twenties self and told me how it was:

“Here’s how we hire people at our company. First we throw people into the deep end of the pool.”

“That’s to see if they can swim,” his associate rejoined.

“And then, we throw bricks at them.”

Being a new elder is kind of like that. Only, now you’re expected to pull bodies out of that pool because you’re the lifeguard.

There’s a learning curve—to leadership, to the PCA, to your pastor, to the job—and the time you get from the moment you’re ordained to the expectation that you have answers to tough problems is brief.

I told a another church leader over coffee recently that the three year term has a pace to it: learning, yearning and earning. (If your process isn’t alliterative or rhyming, then it’s not ministry, right?) The first year, you’re figuring it out. The second year, you’re setting goals before your term is up, and the last year, you’re working your way to those goals.

I’m through the first year and survived the bricks—but that’s not the job. As I head into my second year as an elder, I’m much more interested in helping establish our church’s trajectory for the next 5, 10 or even 20 years.

Pragmatic Goals

“This”: came to my inbox by way of “these people”: Money quote:

In Catholic worship with its sacramental focus, O’Connor found her sense of mystery nourished, and saw such nourishment as a key to the writer’s ability to “penetrate concrete reality”: “The more sacramental his theology, the more encouragement he will get from it to do just that.”

Does their theology of the sacraments preclude Evangelicals from nurturing their writers in this way? Not necessarily. Metaphor and symbolism are central to the creative process for writers, and they are an important way in which we evoke and assimilate mystery.

One need not believe in transubstantiation to make the Lord’s Supper more central in worship, nor does a symbolic or metaphorical view of the sacrament render it irrelevant to the lives of artists. But Evangelicals have too quickly and too often reacted to what they perceive as the abuses of the biblical sacrament in the Mass by relegating the Eucharist to a marginal role in their worship.

This cannot be unrelated to the fact that we as a community can seem too much like the generation O’Connor described, “that has been made to feel that the aim of learning is to eliminate mystery.” Our services, like our fiction, are justified by their efficiency in achieving pragmatic goals. Our sermons are full of practical, easy steps to spiritual victory, a better marriage, or financial success; our music is designed to express comfortable emotions; everything is aimed at maximizing the body count at the altar call.

Some of these goals are worth pursuing, but perhaps if abasement before a transcendent deity, felt as such, were one of them, we would produce better Christians and better writers.

Ironworks Gang 2: What makes a healthy small group?

??Jode Poley?? (“Existential Stillborn”: and ??Darin Pesnell?? (“Peznet”: join me for a discussion about what makes a successful small group ministry (Ironworks 1.0 was our college small group back in the day). Big ups to Vessel for use of the intro.

*Ironworks Gang Drinking Game*: Do a shot for every time we use the phrase “There’s a sense where…”

We’re still playing with the format. The next podcast will likely include more awkward silences. And I won’t talk, I’ll just tell horrible jokes. And laugh at them. The whole time.